Weeds: Piece of living history still alive


You’ll remember a couple of years ago, we learned of a fellow who had been at Babe Ruth’s barnstorming game in Sleepy Eye in 1922. And he was in the well-known photo of that event. And he had one of the baseballs that Babe hit that day. And he was still living in Virginia, Minnesota!

Len Youngman was 11 years old that cold October day in 1922. Len was 104 when Scott Surprenant, Dean Brinkman, and I drove up to visit with him at his home. We were amazed to find a man who was living at home, still driving, and volunteering at the hospital.

Len could describe in wonderful detail the day Ruth and Yankee teammate Bob Meusel played at the local ballpark. He also could vividly take us back to Sleepy Eye of the early twentieth century. We spent the afternoon with him recalling the hometown he left in 1942. Len told stories about people and places like it was yesterday.

Scott, Dean, and I returned last year. Len had slowed a bit, no long driving. (I joked to friends, “Watch out when you’re 105; it’s all downhill.”) But his mind was as sharp as ever.

We went to visit again earlier this month. We’ve gotten to know Len’s family and they make us feel welcome. Someone comes in once a week to clean, and family stops by each day. But Len is still in his home, still reads a newspaper every day. He continues to astound at 106.

Tom Larson came with us this time. Tom knows Sleepy Eye names and families better than anyone I know. As I suspected, when Len and Tom got going making connections with people and homes and businesses across the century, it was enough to make your head spin. Sometimes they would go to a street in their minds and go house to house and generation to generation.

Although some of it was going over my head, it was as if a history book had come alive. Len told stories of people, some of whom I knew when I was younger, some just a name I had heard. Occasionally the conversation took us down a dark alley; there were stories of misbehavior and bad acting. It’s good to remind ourselves that these will survive our time on Earth, too.

History as taught in school can be a stifling bunch of names and dates. There is a growing emphasis in the study of history that looks at how common folks lived amid the larger currents. Len gave us a real feel for living in Sleepy Eye 75 years ago. Not only that time and place, but also from his decades traveling the Iron Range as a salesman for Hormel.

I suspect “history” is something I will be thinking about a lot. I joined the board of the Sleepy Eye Historical Society last year. I missed the Annual Meeting in November, so of course was elected president. Actually I had agreed to that beforehand. In a small town, we’ve all got to take a turn at these sorts of things.

I enjoy history. But whether we enjoy it or not, all of us live in it. The day we lived yesterday has become part of our own history.

We can’t escape history. We might want to believe that we are robust individuals living lives we have scripted. The truth is that most of the way we think and act is an amalgam of the people and events that came before us. The more we understand those people, the more we can know ourselves.

Here in Brown County, history is thick with its presence. The US-Dakota War of 1862 was the inception of the Western Indian Wars that would end at Wounded Knee 28 years later. The international milling industry was centered here early in the twentieth century. From the Native peoples to the Turners to the German Bohemian farmers to the more recent inflow of Hispanics, waves of people have made their impact.

I’m sure there are similarly interesting histories every place on Earth. But this is ours, and we should claim that.

That is where the historical organizations come in. The Sleepy Eye Historical Society operates a museum out of the depot which was constructed in 1902. The Brown County Historical Society runs the museum in the 1910 post office. Both these buildings have been given a new purpose, and they are centrally located and essential to the attractiveness of their communities. Brown County and the City of Sleepy Eye own the buildings and deserve a lot of credit for their preservation.

I am on the board of the Brown County Historical Society as the representative from our Sleepy Eye group. In both cases, I feel as if I am returning to my roots. Or to be more accurate, my wife’s roots. Pam was involved with the group that saved the Depot and began the Sleepy Eye Historical Society back in the Eighties. Then she worked for the Brown County Historical Society for 20 years. I hung around a lot there with the kids when they were younger. It’s interesting how things cross back upon themselves in life.

So, I’m going to give you a warning. If you see me, I am probably going to ask/beg/beseech you to become a member of one or both of those Historical Societies. There is also the Springfield Area Historical Society. New Ulm has the Lind House and Wanda Gag House Associations. All need support to continue their work.

These groups are working to preserve memories of our past. Of course, it would be good if we could just keep fellows like Len Youngman around. We reminded Len that we have him booked to throw out the first pitch at the centennial of Ruth’s visit to Sleepy Eye in 2022. He’ll be 111 then. We told him he can move in a few feet.